People For the American Way

Supreme Court Majority Takes Away Key Remedy For Illegal Discrimination

News and Analysis

In late April the Supreme Court’s far-right majority issued another harmful 6-3 decision undercutting congressional laws passed to protect people from discrimination. In Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, the Court ruled that when someone violates certain civil rights laws protecting people with disabilities, they can’t be held financially accountable for the emotional distress they caused. This result was made possible by the three Trump justices on the Court.

Whose rights were violated?

The case was brought by Jane Cummings. She has been deaf from birth, and her primary language is American Sign Language (ASL). Cummings went to Premier Rehab Keller to treat her chronic back pain. The company did not provide her with an ASL interpreter when requested. Instead of serving her, they sent her to another facility.

She sued the company for discrimination on the basis of her disability, which is illegal under the Rehabilitation Act (RA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among other things, she sued to collect damages for the emotional distress she experienced.

The issue she raised applies to anyone who experiences emotional distress from disability discrimination by an entity that has received federal funding.

What did the Supreme Court do?

The Supreme Court’s far-right majority ruled that those two laws don’t allow victims of discrimination to recover damages for emotional distress.

The RA and the ACA prohibit recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of disability. This is an exercise of Congress’s authority under the Constitution’s Spending Clause. Congress can set conditions under which its money can be spent, and the recipients agree to those conditions when they accept the funds.

The question for the Court was whether damages for emotional distress are an available remedy when the law is violated, since the statutes don’t say one way or another. All nine members of the Court agreed that this is like interpreting a contract. So the question becomes: When the rehab facility accepted federal funds and agreed to the conditions (not to discriminate), was it on notice that violating the conditions could require them to compensate the people they harm for emotional distress?

The far-right majority found a way to say no. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court said that in general contract law, damages for emotional distress are not traditionally available for breach of the agreement. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined his opinion.

What did the dissent say?

Justice Breyer wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. He faulted the majority for looking “broadly, at all contracts.” He pointed out that damages for emotional distress are a traditional remedy for contracts of the type where a breach is particularly likely to cause serious emotional distress. And that is exactly the situation in this case, and in any case involving discrimination.

In fact, Breyer cited one of the most important cases ever discussing Congress’s vast authority to prohibit discrimination: the 1964 Heart of Atlanta case upholding the Civil Rights Act. Breyer quoted from Justice Arthur Goldberg’s concurrence in that case, noting that Congress’ antidiscrimination laws seek “the vindication of human dignity and not mere economics.”

This was exactly the point made by a group of disability organizations in an amicus brief: The harm caused by disability discrimination is often not monetary in nature but emotional. Congress set out to address the humiliations that were routinely visited upon people with disabilities. Damages for emotional distress are an important remedy and help give force to the congressional prohibition against discrimination.

As Breyer stated in conclusion, it is “difficult to square the Court’s holding with the basic purposes that antidiscrimination laws seek to serve.” Since the harm caused by intentional discrimination is often non-economic, the majority’s decision will leave many victims “with no remedy at all.”

Who did the Supreme Court majority hurt?

The case is about two specific statutes, the RA and the ACA, which prohibit recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of disability. The reasoning could apply to other federal laws prohibiting other kinds of discrimination by recipients of federal funds. That includes Title VI (race, color, and national origin discrimination) and Title IX (sex discrimination in education).

So in addition to weakening laws protecting people with disabilities, the Court’s decision could also weaken a wide array of other congressionally-passed civil rights protections across the board. The majority has decreed that recipients of federal funds cannot be held financially accountable for the emotional distress caused by their decisions to unlawfully discriminate in violation of those laws.